Effingham—April 16, 2023—Newly released public documents show that Conway developer Meena LLC spent months obtaining state approvals to construct a gas station at the former Boyle’s Market, but failed to consider Effingham’s zoning requirements until after it purchased the property for $362,000.
The omission proved to be serious because local regulations and ordinances take legal precedence over state permits, and the site is in the town’s Groundwater Protection District, where gas stations are prohibited.
In a series of post-purchase missteps, the company began construction without local approvals and permits, and subsequently submitted a site plan application with so many requests for waivers that Lakes Region Planning Commission urged the town to hire an independent third-party professional to help assess it.
The new information comes from public documents posted in an online document resource center for materials about the company’s controversial proposal.
The resource center timeline shows Meena agreed to purchase the business in November 2020 contingent on obtaining the state’s approval to add underground gasoline tanks and pumps to the site’s convenience store, laundromat and apartments. Applications to the state were filed in early December.
The purchase took place on February 24, 2021, one day after the Department of Environmental Services granted conditional approval of the company’s construction plan for installing the gas tanks. The DES letter stated that the state’s approval of the construction plan did not supersede local ordinances and regulations.
Effingham officials say they first learned of the gas station proposal on February 25 when the Fire Chief received his copy of the DES letter. But it wasn’t until March 3 that Meena agent and land planning consultant Mark McConkey emailed the zoning officer to ask for “whatever is needed with the town” to install underground gasoline tanks.
In an apparent expression of urgency, McConkey asked whether Meena could begin excavating “at their own peril” before obtaining town approvals. The zoning officer advised that before any changes could be made to the property, the company would need approvals from the ZBA and Planning Board.
As has been widely reported, McConkey applied to the ZBA for a special exception on March 10 and received it on March 29th. But the Planning Board declined to review the site plan application because the zoning ordinance prohibits gas stations at the site as a threat to the Ossipee Aquifer. The company applied for a variance to override the prohibition on May 14.
By that time, however, both boards had become aware that Meena was already building the gas station without approvals or permits. A cease-and-desist order stopped the work while the ZBA variance application process proceeded.
Asked by the ZBA to explain the haste to build without approvals, McConkey said his client, who owns gas stations around the region, wanted to take advantage of a “window of opportunity” to get the tanks in the ground rather than “wait for months” for the subcontractors to be available again.
But at the next ZBA meeting, on July 8, McConkey pivoted, saying the town misled his client into believing it had all the permits it needed for the installation. He read a letter from Meena principal Pankaj “Prince” Garg saying “Questions were asked regarding any specific issues that might be an obstacle to approval but [we were] told there were none.”
The town pushed back, according to meeting minutes in the online resource center. The zoning officer said developers typically meet with the town in advance of starting a project to understand local regulations, but Meena did not. Meena was “aware of the risks” of proceeding with the work, added ZBA Chair Theresa Swanick.
It did not end there. McConkey reiterated his accusation against the town at the July 20 ZBA meeting by reading aloud from what he called an “affidavit” by Meena agent Jim Doucette, a Conway real estate broker.
Doucette said he “had conversations” with the zoning officer, who failed to advise him the site is in a groundwater protection overlay district. He said property owner Garg had “done his due diligence,” and “everyone was under the impression” they could start pumping gas with just state permits.
The town again pushed back. Board Chair Swanick said it was not the town’s responsibility to advise a potential purchaser of a property about the zoning implications of its purchase, and the zoning officer reiterated that no formal application for information was ever made regarding the project.
Swanick asked McConkey to confirm there had been no formal denial of the project because there had been no formal application. McConkey conceded she was correct, and the question of responsibility was dropped.
Meena was never fined for the illegal work, and its site plan application remains pending with the Planning Board. The document resource center is at bit.ly/meenagas.